Despite the name, Cocothé is not especially French. The name derives from the restaurant’s first incarnation as a purveyor of chocolates and teas. It always had a sit-down lunch menu, but lately this little Sewickley café is transforming into a full-service restaurant.
As the hours expand, so does the premises. In the dining room, the shelves that once held jars of loose-leaf teas are gone, and the PLCB placard in the adjoining storefront portends a move next door that will include a bar. We hope the decor will remain much the same: plenty of white shading into grey, punctuated by unstained butcher-block tables and a single, statement chandelier — a timeless, neutral backdrop to the real works of art, the food.
Not only Cocothé’s name, but its intimate art-deco storefront can’t help but call to mind the cafés of Paris’ Left Bank in the 1920s. In terms of regional inspiration, however, the kitchen is hard to pin down. Foie gras with black-plum butter and red-onion marmalade, while French-inspired, is a dish that would be at home in many upscale, contemporary American dining rooms. Scallops with adobo, black-bean hummus and cilantro-lime vinaigrette are clearly Southwestern. And beef carpaccio with parmesan, marinated mushrooms, ice-wine vinegar, vanilla beans and ricotta is in a class by itself.
But Cocothé’s French accent isn’t entirely misleading: In terms of attention to detail, premium ingredients and plating, executive chef Dave DeVoss operates more in the classically Continental tradition than the somewhat looser American one, even as he mostly eschews the elaborate sauces and long-developed flavors of Escoffier.
The dinner menu is meat-centric, and leans especially toward seafood, although a couple items are available in vegetarian form. Everything was gorgeously presented. We started with the crab cake, a tall cylinder rising from a pool of vibrant orange- and red-pepper mojo sauce with a chaste dollop of tartar alongside and sliced avocado fanned on top. The cake had scarcely any binder, mostly crab pressed together and lightly browned. Microgreens provided more than just visual appeal, but also vegetal flavor and a tiny bit of crunch. The avocado was an appealing idea, but its naked flavor wasn’t unified with the crab, and we couldn’t figure out how to incorporate the tartar sauce when the mojo was clearly the crab’s intended co-star. In a city of crab cakes, we’ve seen a lot of attempts to take them upmarket, and this one stood awkwardly to the side.
The aforementioned scallops with adobo fell short more emphatically, as the sear from the grill was so intense that it imparted a bitter flavor, even aroma, to the whole dish. It was so pervasive that at first we suspected an off ingredient in the black-bean hummus. But no, it was those deep-black char marks on the shellfish, all the more disappointing because the scallops were nonetheless tender and rare, and the other components were satisfactory. Indeed, the scallop-free vegetarian version of this dish would surely be preferable.
Happily, our entrees set our meal to rights. Rainbow trout, a succulent pan-seared filet with a lightly browned crust, showed that the kitchen was equal to the challenge of seafood, and the pea risotto, studded with larger, firmer fava beans, was a perfectly light yet substantial accompaniment.
Walnut-crusted lamb was the most expensive item on the menu, but two diners already well into their meals when we arrived recommended it, and it was worth the splurge. Five ribs’ worth of chops were crusted with crushed walnuts and seared as a rack, then split and rather pleasingly criss-crossed on a bed of polenta, with curried carrots and a split, roasted apricot alongside. It was a gorgeous presentation of even more gorgeous meat. The char was not so heavy as to obscure the lovely pink interior, and the ground walnuts added depth of flavor. The other components played their supporting roles well, although, Goldilocks-like, Jason found the polenta a bit coarse, the carrots a bit soft and the apricot a touch firm. But the flavorings were perfect.
The original Cocothé concept persisted amid the house-made desserts in the form of chocolate cake with Earl Grey ice cream. But June is strawberry season, so we couldn’t resist fresh strawberry shortcake, which uses a madeleine batter to create something firmer than sponge cake, more delicate than biscuit and marvelously absorbent of the fruit juices soaking in.
We frequently experience meals in which we’re wowed by the appetizers, only to be somewhat let down by our entrees. Cocothé was a reversal of that, and it was a real pleasure to enjoy a dinner whose enjoyment built with every dish.